I had to interrupt our prayer last night. I just had to. There were 60 campers and their counselors moving through a spirited evening service in Moshavah, one of the tent units at OSRUI where I am serving as camp faculty for two weeks this summer. I jumped up impulsively near the end, right before Aleinu.
I reminded the group that shortly they would call out the words “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – in the prayer. Camp tradition at OSRUI is that those words are called out with spirit.
And I asked, “What does this mean?” The campers, most of whom know the phrase tikkun olam, answered on point – repair the world. How? Treat people with kindness, take care of the environment. All good. I added primacy of action – that repairing the world means we have to act – and then explained the sit-in over gun control that was going on at that moment in the House of Representatives, adding, “Be inspired.”
In that conversation, one of the campers made a connection to our learning topic of our unit this session – promises and agreements, or, in Jewish lingo, brit or covenant. “Yes,” my faculty partner Cantor Rayna Green and I thought, “they’re getting it!
This morning the same group gathered at our outdoor picnic tables in their quirky assortment of camp clothing and rain gear and listened with rapt attention to the words of Representative John Lewis, recorded yesterday as he spoke from the floor of the House of Representatives.
“We can no longer wait,” Lewis said. “We can no longer be patient. So today, we come to the well of the House to dramatize the need for action. Not next month, not next year, but now — today. Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way…We have been too quiet for too long,” he added. “There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.”
None of the counselors or campers gathered knew who Representative Lewis was much before. All were mesmerized by his resonant voice and powerful words.
From there, the campers in their small working groups (va’adot) explored Jewish texts about the sacredness of life and the prohibition against murder. Each group was charged with creating a Jewish message that spoke to the issue that our legislators had taken up by sitting down on the floor of the House. We wanted them to take the ancient, timeless biblical words about covenant and put them to action in our lives, now!
The groups talked about Torah’s emphasis on life – its sanctity and our decisions to choose life. We considered the Mishnah’s teaching that one life is equal to the value of a world. So if you take a life you kill an entire world. If you save a life, you save an entire world. Our campers and counselors engaged in lively conversation about Jewish text and gun violence, a conversation that kept going, pushing us late for the next activity for sure.
The groups wrote their teachings, and we photographed each group with those teachings written on poster board, promising we were going to share their messages in support of our legislators’ action. In sum, the hastily re-planned morning Limud (learning) session succeeded. We showed our campers that Torah has a message for real life and they have a responsibility to act on their values in the world.
Could we have planned for that teachable opportunity? Not a chance. Truth is, 20 hours earlier we were sitting around talking about that session. We had mapped out some solid lessons based in Torah and aimed at our audience of 13-year olds. But we were wrestling with it, too, fearing our material was too ethereal. How were our teenage campers going to experience this? We didn’t yet have an answer. Then I caught the news and we quickly switched gears. In Rayna’s words, “You can’t force real life situations to happen, so when it happens, we have to take advantage of it!” Indeed we did. The time came to say something, and to teach our campers how to make a little noise with a Jewish voice.